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Friday, May 06, 2005

A plug-in gas-electric vehicle may be key in saving fuel and cutting pollution

Is there a car that can cut America's oil imports to a trickle, dramatically reduce pollution, and do it all with currently available technology? Greg Hanssen thinks so. His company* has already built one such car -- a converted Toyota Prius that gets 100 to 180 mpg in a typical commute. Andrew A. Frank thinks so, too. The University of California at Davis professor has constructed a handful of such vehicles. His latest: a converted 325-horsepower Ford Explorer that goes 50 miles using no gas at all, then gets 30 mpg. "It goes like a rocket," he says.

These vehicles are quickly becoming the darlings of strange bedfellows: both conservative hawks and environmentalists, who see such fuel efficiency as key to ensuring national security and fighting climate change. Reducing dependence on the turbulent Middle East "is a war issue," says former CIA Chief R. James Woolsey, who calls the cars' potential "phenomenal."

What's the secret? It's as simple as adding more batteries and a plug to hybrids such as the Prius. That way, the batteries can be charged up at any electrical outlet -- letting this so-called plug-in hybrid travel 20 to 60 miles under electric power alone. Since most Americans drive fewer than 30 miles a day, such a car could go months without visiting the filling station. "The only time you would have to gas up is when you go out of town," says Felix Kramer, who founded the nonprofit California Cars Initiative to promote plug-ins. Run the internal combustion engine on a blend of gasoline and biofuels like ethanol, and it would use almost no oil products at all. "That changes the world," says Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy.

CalCars is using the Toyota Prius as a high-visibility platform to demonstrate the fuel economy benefits of a grid-pluggable hybrid that offers an extended EV range. The California Cars Initiative is a group of entrepreneurs, technologists, environmentalists and other citizens working to spur the adoption of efficient, non-polluting automotive technologies.

Greg Hanssen and his colleagues at *EnergyCS, for example, replaced the Prius' existing 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel metal hydride battery with an advanced 9-kWh lithium ion battery pack. They hope to offer a conversion kit to Prius owners. It carries a weight penalty of about 170 pounds.

In a project sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), several utilities, government agencies, DaimlerChrysler is building a fleet of up to 40 PHEV Sprinter delivery vans.

However, David Hermance, Toyota's executive engineer for environmental engineering, says, "We keep looking at the concept, and at some point it might be feasible, but it isn't there yet," says. Hybrids are estimated to cost $2,000 to $5,000 more than conventional cars to make, and the larger batteries for plug-ins would add several thousands dollars more.

Last December, (2004) the bipartisan US National Commission on Energy Policy included plug-ins as an element of its energy strategy. The ‘Set America Free’ coalition is meanwhile pushing for $2 billion in incentives, pointing out that "if all cars on the road are hybrids and half are plug-in hybrid vehicles, U.S. oil imports would drop by 8 million barrels per day." (Business Week)

Giving Hybrids A Real Jolt

The Benefits of Plug-In Hybrids

CalCars (Plug-in Prius) Founder Felix Kramer on Science Friday - Streaming information is available at and

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